by Diann Daniel

18,000+ Geeks at Your Service: The Secret of Best Buy’s Success

Nov 13, 20087 mins
IT Leadership

Best Buy has used information technology to innovate and differentiate itself, and to turn customer service into an art form.

Great in-store customer service is important, but excellent customer service after you leave, well that stands apart from the crowd. Best Buy has differentiated itself with just that strategy. Through its Remote Service Project, an enterprisewide business-IT system that remotely distributes computer repair, maintenance and other work among the company’s more than 10,000 Best Buy Geek Squad Agents (who provide tech support and more), the company was able to boost customer satisfaction long after point-of-sale.

The information technology project began in response to research that made a troubling discovery: Far too many PC buyers were unable to get their computers up and running once they got home, a problem that colored (for the worse) their assessment of Best Buy. The company’s response was its Remote Service Project, a strategy targeted at PCs, but which has been extended to home theater systems and more. The Remote Service Project has enabled the company’s Geek Squad agents to serve 25 percent more customers and has improved redo rates by 33 percent. On top of that, the company attributes an annual sales increase of $6.2 million to the project. The Remote Service Project was also a standout winner in the CIO 100 competition.

Brian Carlson,’s Editorial Director, sat down with Bob Willett, CIO of Best Buy and CEO of Best Buy International. Willett talked about why he doesn’t use the terms “IT” or “information technology,” how business information shops can achieve ambitious projects, and how you can empower your team to innovate.

CIO: How did the Remote Service Project begin?

Willett: The Remote Service Project started with [research] around the customer experience: Once customers bought [a PC], what was their experience when they got home? We decided that one of the key things we had to do was to improve that experience [by minimizing PC] down time.

CIO: How did you approach the Remote Service Project?

Willett: In Best Buy we start our projects based upon feedback from customers and feedback from our employees, and this was no different. We’d launched Geek [Squad], and we wanted to maximize the availability of the 18,000 Geeks. We wanted to improve their productivity, which would improve the service to the customer and improve the time that the consumer had access to their product, so that when their PC went down, instead of losing it for a week to 10 days, we were now [shortening] downtime to 24 hours: That’s a massive breakthrough. [The Remote Service Project] also meant that when you go into the store and you want your PC repaired, instead of [having a long wait time because of] that particular store having a backlog of work to do, we now have a remote capability that identifies that backlog and [can assign] the work [to another] store remotely. And so it really means that we can level out the work across the enterprise, but above all, deliver a great experience for the customer and maximize the up time of the capability of the product that they’ve sourced from us.

CIO: In what ways did the results of the project differ from your expectations at the start of it?

Willett: Like all the major projects we’ve carried out in the last five years— and Best Buy has done a number of major projects, from supply chain to the back office to the front end of Geek— it always staggers me, the ingenuity inside of the enterprise. Yes, we bring in additional folks from outside. We work with, in this case, 30 different enterprises outside of Best Buy. But it always staggers me, the ingenuity of our people to find resolution to something that no one else has done before.

CIO: Based on your experience with the Remote Service Project, what would you tell other organizations interested in improving customer service?

Willett: Well, I guess I’d start from the premise, first of all, that you’ve got to listen to your consumers. We can’t compete with Wal-Mart and we can’t compete with Costco at what they do. They’re excellent at what they do. So we have to, like others, find a unique point of difference. We have decided that our unique point of difference is going to be around the customer experience, not just in the store but multi-channel and our experiences around our 180,000 employees having a genuine part to play in the movie, not just coming to work to work but to come and actually make a difference with that experience. That’s what we’re trying to do, and I think that’s the real essence of what Best Buy stands for. And my advice to other companies that are looking at these sorts of things is: Don’t get started unless you intend to really change the way you manage and think. And really, really empower your employees, because that’s where all of our good ideas come from. They don’t come from people like me. I create the environment and the energy and so on, but the good ideas come from our people who interact every day with our customers because they’re the people who know, they’re the people who see the issues.

CIO: What would you tell other companies about empowering their IT organizations to create innovation and effect change?

Willett: I don’t talk about IT. I think it’s not about information technology, it’s about business information, so my key leadership team are called BIOs— business information officers. So their first job is to understand and be fully immersed in the running of the company, and they do an excellent job of that. And their job is to partner with their business colleagues and find smarter, quicker ways of getting our internal customers to the objectives that they want through technology. That’s, I think, the success of how Best Buy works and will continue to work. And so I don’t look at it from an information technology perspective: [IT is] business, and I think that’s the start point. That’s the real point of difference.

CIO: What technologies did you investigate?

Willett: When we started this project, we knew that we were entering into a zone that no one else was in, so we knew that what we had to do was not look at retail but to go look at service— the service industry. And as a result of that, we probably looked at 100 or so different utilities or entities out there, and settled eventually on 30. We worked with 30 different entities to pull this together. And I’m not going to be specific about some of those, because that’s a part of the secret sauce of the capability we built. But we really went to talk with companies that were an art form in providing service. And we spent a lot of time with those people, we listened, we traveled. In fact, one of the technologies we’re using comes from Israel. We really looked hard and fast, and then found people who had the same values as us, same culture as us, and started to work with those people.

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I think what we’ve done is to find utilities that have the same passion as we do for exceeding customer expectations through service. The technology is less important, candidly. Yes, it’s important in the long run, but the more important thing, first of all, is to find a group of people who think the same way you do and work together as a team to resolve the issues.

CIO: What have you learned from your customers since you’ve launched the Remote Service Project?

Willett: The Remote Service Project has actually taught us a great deal. First of all, we started out with a vision that was so big. Our vision now has moved out significantly, we started Geek and this Remote Service Project, for PC. [Those services have] now extended to TVs, to home theater, and now, in Europe, into mobile phones. In other words, what we’re now looking to do is to provide everyone with their own personal CIO. You can come at us through e-mail, you can come at us through the call center, and we’ll identify a person for you to talk to. That’s how we’re really exceeding customer expectations in the way we’re doing this.